Why Does it Come to This? / I Vow to Free – A Talk Given by Lee Shields, October 11, 2020

Posted by on Oct 26, 2020 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on Why Does it Come to This? / I Vow to Free – A Talk Given by Lee Shields, October 11, 2020

After the sittings on Friday mornings, the koan that has been shared recently is case 98 from The Record of Tung-shan (Dongshan) that goes like this:

One time when the Master was washing his bowls, he saw two birds contending over a frog.

A monk who also saw this asked, “Why does it come to that?”

The Master replied, “It’s only for your benefit, Acarya.”

Before sitting on Wednesday evenings, we have taken up the translations of the first of the Four Infinite vows, also known as the Bodhisattva Vows.

The Mountain Lamp version is:

All beings beyond number, I vow to free.

Aitken Roshi’s translation:

The many beings are numberless; I vow to save them.

In striving over the frog, the birds act on their vow to free us. The frog offers it’s life to free us. Each calling to us to release craving, release choosing. Releasing all ambitions and expectations, I am free to speak; I am free to nap. Each of these koans – of the birds and frog, and the first infinite vow –  is one side of the same reversible garment.

Birds and frog provide for us the immediacy, cutting through abstract expressions to vitalize the first noble truth of dukka: illness and death – why does it come to dukkha – suffering? The first noble truth is the recognition of suffering as innate to existence. Not necessarily constant for you or me in a given moment, but doubtlessly inescapable over our days, and never a moment is this world absent of suffering.

Madelon helped me by finding another translation that speaks for me. In the one I read above, the monk asked, “Why does it come to that?” Here is the other version:

Once when Master Dongshan was washing his bowls with another monk, they both saw two birds contending over a frog. The monk asked, “Why does it have to come to this?”
The master said, “It’s only for your benefit, venerable.”

Encounter Dialogues of Dongshan Liangjie
compiled by Satyavayu of Touching Earth Sangha

A small thing, but for me the word “this,” is closer, intimate. When what we see comes to “this,” undeniable and visceral, we are given the gift of fire, of motivation. Why this? Why here, now? As if a demand to Stop! See!

The second noble truth is that suffering arises from craving, from attachment, and the third noble truth states that suffering can end through letting go.

That fire of motivation may be valid as far as it goes. As in the saying that we listen to reason, but we obey pain. Beyond motivation, “this” calls to us before thought, before the story of how all the pieces fit. It calls us to see what we see, and hear what we hear. That call is unlimited, available as you listen to my voice over Zoom, even now.

The other night I went to dinner on Capitol Hill in Seattle. I parked just short of fire trucks, lights flashing, blocking the street beyond the next intersection. The kiosks to pay for parking were all smashed and glass cracked, and I remembered warnings about the safety of leaving my car in this area. Police cars and police abounded. Smoke rose from somewhere on the next block, I presumed from a fire set. Spectators around me craned to see. We all could hear the chants of protestors.

There were police, and there were protestors. How would you count – two bodies, or one in isometric exercise?

Reaching the Plum Bistro. I sat at a table against the sidewalk, with the whole of the wall rolled up to the ceiling, open. I heard what I hoped was a flash bang, though I wouldn’t know to distinguish the sound of a gun. Sirens and more lights flashed, reflected off windows with the passing of an AMR ambulance. Was this one motion of injured and ambulance? Or two?

Spectators on the sidelines, facemasks on, watching. Garbage truck stopping, cars flowing around it with varying patience. Mostly young people parking, getting into and out of on-demand rides, greeting others, and going into and out of buildings and restaurants. Some seem to walk toward the protests. Most went about their evening in high spirits as if all in this scene was routine, which I know it has become for this neighborhood. As Ace reminded us on a Friday morning, “It’s not all frog guts.” One city finding its way on a Saturday night, with me in that undertow. Drawn into This, one city, one night, one body. All pieces playing one Big Band song; the discordant phrases shocking we listeners to cringe away.

All beings beyond number. I have vowed to free, to save.

The garbage truck blocking the street traffic and my view beyond the sidewalk, and a single worker saving all by collecting the containers from some unseen location. The restaurant server saving me from hunger. My eating as compassionate act for body and mind after a week of work mostly isolated in my home. We each may have a different view on what actions are compassionate service, and which are blind and self-serving. When compassionate, protesters declare for the needs of those in need. When compassionate, police declare for the protection of others, for order on behalf of all.

I know police who see their work as service, and who wept when subject to stones and angry debasement. As a protester, I’ve been chased, treated roughly, and teargassed by angry police. Each event in the news seems to be accompanied by blame. Not just related to police and protests; is it more in our culture than others that we question ubiquitously of who was responsible? As if nothing should ever go wrong, as if each loss was avoidable and should be avoided the next time? Friday morning last week Cindy observed that neither Dongshan nor monk expressed blame or guilt in seeing what they saw. Yet there was no barrier to their embrace of this before them.

In this poem, Stonehouse adds commentary to the subject:

Scorpion tails and wolf hearts pervade the world

everyone has a trick to get ahead

but how many smiles in a lifetime

or moments of peace in a day

who can change tracks when their cart tips over

when disaster strikes there’s no time for shame

this old monk isn’t merely pointing fingers he’s trying to remove peoples blinders and chains

The mountain poems of stone house, translation red pine, page 43 Sent from my iPhone

The garbage truck itself rises with mechanical roars and bangs to save us. No less so, the man entering the restaurant pulling on his mask, responds to the first vow. Sometimes though, we hear the call all the more when it seems unbearable to us, and we cannot help but call out, like the monk – why does it come to this?

12th Ave and Pike was the ancient way that evening, and still is, as Newport Way, the street before my house now, is the ancient way I walk today. Just as you walk the ancient way with every step in kinhin.

In one of his lectures, Dogen recalled a story:

…a monk asked Yunmen, “How is it when it is expressed completely in a single phrase?”

Yunmen said, “Ripped apart from ancient times till now.”

Each of us with compassionate receptivity hear the cries of the world. Each of us, naked before the undeniable facts. How do I, how do you respond now, ripped apart as we are? Don’t forget your own cries. Attention! Respond!

We toil to protect what we love, to protect what is vital, to soothe agony and to evoke joy. All that is vital passes quickly away; all agony too passes quickly away. Also undeniable is that which is here, numberless beings in our toil, playing one song, from ancient times till now.

The many beings are numberless,

I vow to save them.

The vow is a koan indeed; there is more than the words can convey. Words such as, “many,” “numberless,” “I,” “save,” “them.” The vow is wonderful as written, and each of these words is uneven ground to trip us.

I looked up “free” in the dictionary and found, “not under the control or in the power of another; able to act or be done as one wishes. Example: ‘I have no ambitions other than to have a happy life and be free.’ Historical: Not a slave.”

We can understand the vow to save, to free, with conventional language, and rightly so. Dogen spoke for the benefit of others in the circumstances of his time, and would find no conflict in our doing so today, as recorded in this passage of his words.

If you make a vow not to see a woman for ages and ages to come, won’t you be neglecting them when you vow, “Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to save them”? If you neglect them, you are no bodhisattva. Is this the great compassion of the Buddha? This vow is the raving of a drunkard who has drunk deeply from the wine barrel of the small vehicle.

Dogen, Eihei. How to Raise an Ox: Zen Practice as Taught in Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo (pp. 105-107). Wisdom Publications. Kindle Edition.

Our vows are now and have always been more than practice on the cushion, not limited to the count of a breath, the sound in a room. Otherwise, neither the monk nor Donghan would have raised their gaze to observe birds and frog.

But to stop there, is to disembowel Zen practice, as if freeing is dependent on circumstances. Stopping here is to stumble on the ground of the words and ideas. In Shobogenzo, Dogen wrote these two passages as well:

When one thing becomes a Buddha, all things become Buddhas. When Shakyamuni attained enlightenment, he said, “When the morning star appeared, I and the great earth with all its beings simultaneously became Buddhas.” . . . What we call the body and mind in the Buddha Way is grass, trees, and wall rubble; it is wind, rain, water, and fire.

Dogen, Eihei. How to Raise an Ox: Zen Practice as Taught in Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo (p. 85). Wisdom Publications. Kindle Edition.

I might add flash bangs and garbage trucks to Dogen’s list, as well as sound and video freezing and unfreezing over Zoom.

And the second passage from Dogen is this…

You only attain the mind of Buddha when there is no hating and no desiring. But do not try to gauge it with your mind or speak it with words. When you simply release and forget both your body and mind and throw yourself into the house of Buddha, and when functioning comes from the direction of Buddha and you go in accord with it, then with no strength needed and no thought expended, freed from birth and death, you become Buddha.

[5] Shōji, trans. Norman Waddell and Abe Masao, in Eastern Buddhist, 5, no. 1 (1972), pp. 79–80. 6 Genjō kōan, trans.

I am grateful for Dogen’s fine words, but they are dead unless we find their pulse in our arms today. And to appreciate the pulse, we must avoid stumbling on these words. So let me speak as plainly as I can.

We cannot but have our own laments in seeing it has come to this. Our humanity cries out, “why,” “…how do I live in this world?” In our casting about, against our will, we vow – “save me/ save you / save all.” Sometimes in gratitude, sometimes in desperation, letting go, we see what we see, and hear what we hear. In seeing and hearing, response arises without effort, in accord.

Responses arise, too, when we rejoice in the fall of light through a tree, and the sight of the city softened by fog.

If there is anything of those few sentences that can be denied, I don’t know it. If you can deny any of this – speak. Otherwise, we present, have already lamented and vowed. That leaves it to us to simply see what we see, and hear what we hear. Without delay or hesitation, we can start now.

I’ll leave you with a poem of Dogen’s:

What can I accomplish?

Although not yet a Buddha,

Let my priest’s body

Be the raft to carry

Sentient beings to the yonder shore.

Heine, Steven. The Zen Poetry of Dogen: Verses from the Mountain of Eternal Peace . (23-J) Dharma Communications. Kindle Edition.

And this taken from Guantanamera, by the Cuban poet, JoséMarti:

Con los pobres de la tierra

Quiero yo mi suerte echar:

El arroyo de la sierra

Me complace más que el mar.


With the poor people of this earth

I want to share my fate:

The streams of the mountain

Pleases me more than the sea.

Before Madelon leads us in chanting the Four Infinite Vows, we have some time where you can bring up comments or questions about something in the talk, or any practice-related topic.

Thank you.